General Manager George McPhee knew that two years of decreasing point totals and pervasive public doubt as to whether the Washington Capitals’ star winger could ever regain his form took a toll on Alex Ovechkin.
“Even the great athletes,” McPhee said, “can lose their confidence from time to time and Alex had a tough year and a half.”
That’s what made Ovechkin’s resurgence in this lockout-shortened season and return to the NHL’s upper echelon, culminating in the captain winning a third Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, all the more important in McPhee’s view.
Because regardless of the coach or the system, no player’s individual success is as intertwined in the ebb and flow of the Capitals as Ovechkin’s.
“Careers don’t go in straight lines, the needle goes up and down from time to time,” McPhee said. “But I think we all recognize that when Alex is feeling this way and playing this way that this organization can accomplish anything. That this team can win a Cup.”
Therein lies the ultimate challenge and evaluation of both superstar and team. For all Ovechkin’s personal accolades — three Hart trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards (MVP chosen by the players), three Rocket Richard Trophies (top goal scorer), an Art Ross (top point scorer) and a Calder (rookie of the year) — he has yet to lead the Capitals past the second round of the playoffs.
While being named MVP by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association offers validation for Ovechkin’s work to reinvent himself by switching positions and rediscovering the potency to his game, under first-year Coach Adam Oates — there are greater goals.
“I look at the [finals] series, I just want to be there right now to play for Stanley Cup,” Ovechkin said on a conference call from Russia on Sunday. “It’s kind of position when you win you win, but sometimes if you win you lose some. I win this one and we lose Stanley Cup.”
Just because he’s taken steps to alter his game and reassert himself among the NHL’s elite doesn’t mean Ovechkin’s work can subside. Amid a league full of opponents looking to render him ineffective and facing a more challenging division next season after NHL realignment, Ovechkin must continue to grow and improve as a dynamic player.
There is no greater tenet in Oates’s coaching philosophy than that of steady, deliberate improvement, and Ovechkin is no exception. Oates believes the winger has plenty of untapped potential within his game. Now that he has built a strong, trusting relationship with Ovechkin, Oates believes it may be easier to convey those directives and wants to ensure that the captain doesn’t grow stagnant.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, he should be up for that award every year,” Oates said Saturday in a phone interview. “I think now he understands I’ve got his back, I’m coming from the right place and I’m here to help him and help the team. I think we can just keep growing together along with everybody. Everybody’s got to improve, and it sure helps that process when your best player is willing to improve.”
At this stage, there’s little doubt that Oates has earned Ovechkin’s trust. After calling his family and McPhee upon the announcement of his third Hart trophy, Ovechkin called Oates to say thank you.
“Without him, I never go to right wing and I never go to probably that kind of position where I have right now,” Ovechkin said.
The adjustments Oates endorsed paid off for Ovechkin, who said his fractured left foot is healing well. Ovechkin said he is ready to tackle any recommendation from his coach next season, confident they’ve created a solid partnership.
“[One] hundred percent I feel I’m back on track, especially with him,” Ovechkin said. “It's kind of position when you understand [what] you have to do for you, to switch positions to change your game, to change your style. Adam show me everything. . . . It’s unbelievable. Right wing is the right wing, and I’m pretty happy we made the switch.”
This season, as he established himself at right wing, Ovechkin propelled the Capitals out of the Eastern Conference basement to a playoff berth and a Southeast Division title. The hope the Capitals are banking on is that a consistently improving Ovechkin leads the team to greater triumphs.
“I think now we’re all going in the right direction again and that Adam will be able to get the best out of other players as well now when they saw what he could do with Ovi,” McPhee said. “We’re hoping that this can catapult us in the right direction, that this was the shot in the arm that he needed and we needed.”